Strength in numbers

NEW YORK — You have probably heard of the Keltner List. It is a series of questions invented by Bill James a few years ago to bring some clarity to a larger question: Does a player belong in the Hall of Fame? It doesn’t exactly give you a definitive answer, but once you’ve run a player through the Keltner list you definitely have a better feel for their Hall of Fame case.

The original list was meant specifically for Ken Keltner, a slick fielding third baseman who made seven All-Star Games and was a Hall of Fame cause for a small but vocal group of fans.*

(* – The list of questions made a pretty compelling case that Keltner, while a fine player, was not quite Hall of Fame worthy.)

There are many questions on the list. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Was he the best player on his team? Is he the very best player in baseball history not in the Hall of Fame?

My favorite question on the Keltner List is No. 13:

“If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?”

That is the first question that crosses my mind every time I think about a baseball Hall of Fame candidate. Take: Rafael Palmeiro. Terrific player. Huge career numbers. Borderline Hall of Fame case (PED questions notwithstanding). So I would often ask myself: if Rafael Palmeiro were the best player on his team, would it be likely that his team wins a pennant?

And the answer: I just don’t know. His teams never won a pennant. They did come close three times — in 1996 in Baltimore, in 1997 in Baltimore and in 1999 in Texas. But even on those teams, I don’t think Palmeiro was the best player. In 1996 and 1997, I’d say that Robbie Alomar was better, Brady Anderson might have been better, Mike Mussina from the pitcher’s side was probably better. In 1999, Ivan Rodriguez was a more important player. And, like I said, they still didn’t win.

That’s not to say that the answer is “No.” I’m just saying it’s questionable.

When Torii Hunter retired recently, I was hit with numerous “Is Torii Hunter a Hall of Famer?” questions. And, first thing, I asked the question: Would you expect a team with Torii Hunter as its best player to win a pennant? I think the answer is: Probably not. Hunter played in three American League Championship Series, and you could make the argument that he was the best player when it happened in Minnesota (though Jacque Jones and Corey Koskie and even A.J. Pierzynski have their own argument). But I don’t think anyone EXPECTED those teams to win the pennant, and they didn’t win the pennant.

So, if pushed, I would have to say: Torii Hunter gets a “No” on Keltner Question 13.

Then: I look at the World Series this year.

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Who is the best player on this Kansas City Royals team? That’s a loaded question. Wander around Kansas City and you would have some people argue for Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez or Alex Gordon. There would be those who said the Cyborg Wade Davis is the team’s most essential player. Ever since Ben Zobrist came to town, there are those who might say they can no longer imagine the team without him.

But most people would probably say the best player is Lorenzo Cain. He will certainly get the most MVP votes. He has the most Wins Above Replacement.

And, as Keltner List inventor Bill James asks, isn’t Lorenzo Cain essentially the same player as Torii Hunter?

Compare Cain in 2015 to Hunter in 2002:

Cain: .307/.361/.477, 263 total bases, 101 runs, 72 RBIs, 28 stolen bases, 126 OPS+, should be a Gold Glove winner (but won’t based on the Gold Glove finalists).

Hunter: .289/.334/.524, 294 total bases, 89 runs, 94 RBIs, 23 stolen bases, 124 OPS+, Gold Glove winner.

That was not an atypical year for Hunter. And while it’s not an exact match, it’s awfully close — you have two breathtaking defensive center fielders who hit line drives and run the bases and lead with their spirit as well as their games.

Who is the best player on this New York Mets team? Again, close call, lots of candidates — Yoenis Cespedes since he arrived, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, the playoff Daniel Murphy — but it’s probably Curtis Granderson. Throw his numbers in there:

Granderson: .259/.364/.457, 265 total bases, 98 runs, 70 RBIs, 11 stolen bases, 129 OPS+.

He’s not a likely Gold Glove winner, though defensive numbers showed him to be a pretty good defender this year, too. It’s pretty comparable. Here’s another way you can look at it: By runs created:

Granderson: 104 runs created.

Cain: 95 runs created.

Hunter (2002): 93 runs created.

Throw in defense and it’s pretty much a wash. And it tells you something: Baseball is a big game. Yes, we honor the individuals with MVP Awards and Cy Youngs and All-Star votes and Mariano Rivera Reliever Awards (which somehow do not go to Wade Davis) and Gold Gloves and, most prominently, the Hall of Fame.

But look at the Royals and the Mets. As of right now, is there a likely Hall of Famer on either team? No. Sure, one of the younger players — a Matt Harvey or Eric Hosmer or Salvy Perez or Jacob DeGrom (who, at 27, is older than you expect) — might have another decade’s worth of excellence and work their way into the conversation. Guys like Granderson and Alex Gordon and David Wright have had nice careers and with a late-career boost could become candidates. You can throw Lorenzo Cain into that mix, if you like, though he started very late. The aforementioned Cyborg Wade Davis is a hard man to quantify but you can mention him too.

But you would have to say there’s a good chance neither of these teams will have anybody elected to the Hall of Fame. No player on either team will win an MVP Award this year or the Cy Young Award, and neither manager will win Manager of the Year. Dayton Moore has made the most moribund franchise a baseball force, and he has never won the Sporting News Executive of the Year (but the Blue Jays’ Alex Anthopoulos wins the award on the day he was essentially run out of Toronto). The Mets’ Sandy Alderson has not won it either, though his Oakland A’s won three consecutive pennants and his New York Mets were given up for dead countless times.

So how have those teams done it? Well, as stupid simple as it sounds, they’ve done it with lots and lots of good baseball players. That’s baseball. In football, you really need a great quarterback to win a championship. There are examples of caretaker quarterbacks who have led teams with amazing defenses and power running games to championships — Trent Dilfer in Baltimore, Brad Johnson in Tampa Bay — but there are not many examples.

In basketball, you need an all-time great player to win. Again, there are a couple of counter-examples — the Larry Brown Pistons were led by Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups — but winning an NBA championship without an inner-circle, no-doubt Hall of Famer isn’t likely.

In baseball, well, Mike Moustakas might not be an all-time great player. But nine Mike Moustakas quality players would combine for the best offense and defense in baseball — would combine to make one of the best offenses and defense in the HISTORY of baseball.

Noah Syndergaard might not yet be a great pitcher. But four Noah Syndergaards in the rotation would combine to make the Mets a postseason dream team, which is exactly what they have been.

Depth. The Angels have had the best player in baseball the last four years, Mike Trout, but it has only gotten them into the playoffs once, where they were promptly and decisively knocked out. The Nationals’ Bryce Harper had a historic season this year, but he could not keep the team from having a disastrous season that led to the firing of a manager. The Blue Jays’ middle of the lineup — Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion — was one of the most powerful in baseball history, but they lost to these Royals. Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw will almost certainly finish 1-2-3 in the Cy Young voting — all three had awe-inspiring seasons — but their Cubs and Dodgers could not beat these Mets in the playoffs.

Of course, there’s no sure formula in today’s baseball, where the championship is won through a succession of short series. When you have enough good players, you are spreading your bets, you are not counting on great players always being great but setting up the possibility that one of your many good players — Daniel Murphy or Alcides Escobar — will emerge to become the hero.

Which takes us back to the Keltner List Question 13: Was Torii Hunter good enough that if he was the best player on the team, then that team could win the pennant? Well, in-his-prime Torii Hunter was probably about as good as Lorenzo Cain or Curtis Granderson. And it’s sure working out for them.

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